Friday, March 30, 2007

Empty vessel

Edward Berge Says: March 27th, 2007 at 6:25 am Just a quickie cut-and-paste from kela at Lightmind, from his “Are Emptiness and Brahman the Same: Part III”:
Thus, the Madhyamaka’s conception of reality and the Advaitin’s conception of reality are diametrically opposed to one another. For the Advaitin, reality is ultimately that which is the self-existent, while for the Madhyamaka, reality is ultimately empty of such self-existence. While both indeed refer to the ultimate truth as “signless” (animitta), the similarity stops there as their conceptions of reality are completely contrary to one another.
There is another manner in which the Madhyamika and the Advaita Vedanta are fundamentally opposed in their conceptions of reality. As noted above, part of the point of Nagarjuna’s analysis is to undermine the way in which language and conceptualization serve to reify “things” in the world. Although Nagarjuna does not specify in his analysis any theory as to how words are related to reality, other than to say that they are conventional and relational, it may be possible to abstract certain assumptions from the Prasangikas’ presentation that are suggestive as to how they might be related for them. To begin, for the Prasangikas, words do not obtain their meaning by referring to “objects” in the world. Nor do they obtain their meaning due to the effect of some transcendental essence.
In other words, the Prasangikas accept neither an extensionalist nor an intensionalist theory of meaning. Rather, words have meaning, and are able to predicate objects, primarily by virtue of their use (prayojana) and imputation (aropita). In this sense, words are mere nominal signifiers (prajnapti) and their application is merely conventional (vyavahara). This line is in general keeping with the Buddhist tendency toward nominalism. Drawing upon this analysis, later Buddhist thinkers will articulate a theory of meaning something like Saussure’s: words refer to objects by virtue of the exclusion (apoha) of their counter-positives.
There are parallels here with the thoughts of Wittgenstein on such matters, though it is important not to emphasize such similarities beyond the point of their being mere heuristic devices for understanding the Madhyamika. Wittgenstein, for example, also held that words do not obtain meaning by reference to objects. For him, the primary determinant in meaning is how words are used. The Madhyamakas, however, go further than Wittgenstein by insisting that, in reality there is no “thing” as such to which words refer, and that all such “things” are but conceptual constructs that are logically dependent upon their conceptually constructed counter-positives. At this point, a better analog for Prasangika thought might be the Derridean analysis of the Husserlian conception of “essence.”
According to Derrida, there is no unchanging self-same “essence” that fixes the denotation of signifiers — no “transcendent referent” that anchors meaning. This is because “essence” is as much determined by its own iterations as it determines those iterations. Like the Prasangikas, Derrida argues that “meaning” is determined by a series of oppositional relations — signifier/signified, universal/particular, substance/attribute, essence/iteration, concept/thing, scheme/content, map/territory — in which both poles are mutually determinate, and in which no priority can be granted to one of the poles.
Similarly, for the Prasangikas, there is no independent thing or essence that determines meaning. Thus, for the Prasangikas, there is no transcendent referent that determines and has priority over the term “emptiness”. As Chandrakirti says, “emptiness” is itself empty of any essential nature. There is, then, no ultimate “thing” to which the term “emptiness” refers.

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